Young people regard scientists as trusted voices in society…

According to new research conducted for British Science Week which runs to 20th March, most young people feel that scientists need to do more to engage them with science. The research, involving surveys of 2000 14-to18 year olds and 2000 adults about their perspectives of science, scientists, and trust in different societal groups, provides some interesting but not unexpected insights. The comment ‘From this research, it’s clear that young people regard scientists as trusted voices in society, more so than politicians, journalists, or influencers’ made by Katherine Mathieson, the Chief Executive of the British Science Association (BSA), resonated strongly with the Badger.  

Young people’s regard for scientists as trusted voices in society has been reinforced by the work, raised media profile, and clear, honest, and articulate  communications of Professor’s Chris Whitty, Jonathan van Tam, Sarah Gilbert, and many other scientists from public and commercial organisations, during the COVID pandemic. Young people have also heard one of their own generation, Greta Thunberg, frequently tell politicians and journalists ’Don’t listen to me, listen to the scientists’. They regularly see the stark contrast between ‘facts’ from scientists and ‘spin’ from politicians and the media. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that youngsters trust scientists more than politicians when, for example, only 16% (103 out of 650) of elected UK Members of Parliament (MP) have any science, engineering, or mathematics background or interest, and the other 84% have an education dominated by politics, law, economics, history, and philosophy.   

Regarding scientists as a trusted voice in society is a good thing. If politicians, journalists, and social media influencers want to improve their reputations and be trusted on a par with scientists then they probably need more scientists and engineers in their ranks. After all, everything we use in society wouldn’t be there without the work, knowledge, and ingenuity of scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

Last year saw an unprecedented growth in young people wanting to take science subjects at university. This upswing looks likely to continue. Indeed, the Badger’s nephew is considering going to university in 2023 to study a science subject because, as he puts it, his ambition is to ultimately ‘be a leading expert in something important that impacts society’. Currently, however, his thoughts are wavering a little because science subjects are ‘hard’ and many of his friends are preferring ‘easier’ subjects. The Badger, however, is confident that his nephew will decide on a ‘hard’ subject. Why? Because this highly principled lad wants to be a scientist and be seen by others to be part of a community that is seen by his peers as a bastion of trust in future society. British Science Week will hopefully inspire other young people along similar lines, because the never-ending chaos of our world needs trustworthy voices more than ever before.    

Observing the NHS…

Opening bleary eyes at 5:30am in a hospital ward bed to see the smiling face of a PPE-clad nurse wanting to thrust swabs into your nose and throat for a COVID test is an interesting start to the day! This test marked the start to each long, visitor-free, in-patient day that would eventually end around 10p.m. at night.

Patients were not allowed visitors until their stay surpassed five days. After that, one person could visit for one hour, but only once in every subsequent five-day period. No one grumbled. Instead, the Badger and fellow patients used video calls from personal smartphones or tablets to maintain contact with loved ones. The absence of visitors meant we experienced and observed ward operations performed without distractions, and we habitually shared our remarkably consistent primary observations during the quiet troughs that speckle an in-patient’s day.

Firstly, there was unanimous respect for doctors, nurses, and the ward staff who kept things shipshape (many of whom work 11 hour shifts with just a 30-minute unpaid break). Secondly, we observed that although the NHS is slowly transforming to the digital world, there’s still too much paper-based activity constraining efficiency. One nurse commented, ‘If someone borrows your drugs form before I get to you, it’ll take me half an hour to track it down’. Thirdly, we observed that nothing happens unless a busy doctor says so and signs a piece of paper, which they rarely do promptly. Telling a patient in the morning they’re being discharged, and then telling them in the evening that the doctor’s been busy and has gone home without signing the discharge paper is incredibly annoying and systemically inefficient!

There was also a consistent view that debates about NHS funding, a staple for media reporting, are red herrings because there’s much the NHS can improve itself that needs will rather than money. Its own Long Term Plan shows that it knows it must transform from a way of delivering health services that’s still locked into a model largely created when it was founded in 1948. It just needs to progress faster.

Finally, like most transformations, we observed that it’s the people and working practice issues of change rather than technology that is the biggest challenge. Transforming the NHS, the biggest employer in Europe and the world’s largest employer of highly skilled professionals with a headcount of 1.35 million, over half of which are professionally qualified clinical staff, is undoubtedly a massive task. It’s akin to reengineering a giant A380 plane full of passengers while it’s in flight, but it has to be done for the service to be sustainable. Even with its observable flaws, inefficiencies, and transformational strains, we all felt safe, in expert hands, and hugely proud that our country has the National Health Service as part of the bedrock of life across the population.

One in more than 15 million…

Way back in 2006, the Badger and a colleague instigated an annual ‘BAFTA’ style awards evening to recognise the successes of our company’s delivery and technical staff. Making the case for having such an event was straightforward because the sales community already had one, and the delivery and technical community had the biggest number of employees and deserved recognition because they did the real work that generated company profits! The first event, with Richard Hammond from Top Gear as a guest, proved a huge success.   

Those that do things always deserve to have their successes properly recognised. This point was at the forefront of the Badger’s mind as he left an NHS Vaccination Centre last Friday after becoming one of more than fifteen million UK people who have received their first COVID vaccination jab. At 5pm last Thursday, the Badger received an unexpected call from the local Health Centre to schedule an appointment for the jab. The appointment was made for the jab to be administered at a ~1000-seater concert venue serving as a vaccination hub on Friday at 5:15pm, 24 hours later.  

On Friday, the Badger arrived in good time and was immediately impressed. Everything from car parking, temperature checks, registration on arrival, guidance leaflets, socially distanced waiting arrangements, vaccination cubicles, and the monitoring for immediate side effects before leaving, was awesomely simple, well organised, and worked like clockwork. As someone whose career centred on programme and project delivery, the Badger found himself instinctively sensing that this programme is not only well thought through, but also being executed by passionate, professional, and caring people who want to succeed and know what they have to do.    

Musing on the way home afterwards, the Badger decided that this programme warrants delivery and technology ‘BAFTA’ awards like those mentioned above! It is not, after all, politicians, media pundits, or social media influencers who make delivery programmes a success, it’s the good people behind the scenes with no media profile who are doing the real work.  Those doing the planning and tracking, the IT, administration, vaccine manufacturing, logistics, marshalling the car parks, and the army of volunteers, all deserve our thanks and recognition, regardless of whether they work in the NHS or for its suppliers.

The Badgers sure that whatever bumps in the road lay ahead with this vaccination programme, they will be overcome if the politicians keep to its current objectives and approach. The fact that more than 15 million people have had a jab so far also shows that the British people have not lost their mojo, common-sense, or ‘can do, will do’ attitude. When  public organisations, commercial companies, and the British people work together to get things done then they are truly a force to be reckoned with…and long may that continue.

‘Finger trouble’…

Some days, no matter how hard you try, your fingers just don’t seem to do the right thing when interacting with a computer. Other days they accurately do the right thing every time. Most days for normal people, however, your fingers do a mixture of the two.  The Badger experiences the same phenomenon when playing his electric guitar, although in this case you can hear the finger trouble!   

When news broke last week, see here for example, that records in the UK Police National Computer (PNC) database had been wrongly deleted, the Badger, conditioned by decades in the IT industry, immediately suspected that ‘finger trouble’ would have played a part. It nearly always does somewhere along the line when operational services have issues. It was, therefore, no surprise that the UK policing minister said ‘…down to human error, some defective code was introduced as part of that routine maintenance earlier this week and that’s resulted in a deletion of some records …’.

The minister’s words trigger many questions about what happened and why, and why recovering deleted records is more difficult than one might anticipate.  The Badger was  immediately drawn to three things – possible complacency in routine maintenance, testing, and mechanisms for backup and recovery.  The media has concentrated on political points and ‘woe is me’ about the impact on arrests and prosecutions, but the uncomfortable truth is that events like the PNC will occasionally happen. The IT that is behind every facet of daily life is complex, handles huge amounts of data, and has been built and it is maintained by highly skilled and professional people, but there is no such thing as a guarantee of perfection. There is no immunity to finger trouble, and neither is there a crystal ball to predict ‘defective code’. The Badger therefore feels some sympathy for whoever pushed the button that deleted the PNC records.  

We’ve all had finger trouble and accidentally deleted things from our computers.  When it happens, it often provides a reminder that you should have backups!  In today’s world the amount of data created every day is staggering and the whole concept of backup and recovery for major IT systems, and the legal rules for retaining data, is very different to that of the Badger’s formative years in IT. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that deleted PNC records cannot simply be restored from a good old-fashioned, off-site, backup tape!

Nevertheless, the PNC issue should be a reminder for each of us to take regular backups of information that you never want to lose. These days it’s cheap to do and one day you might be relieved that you did. After all, the heavenly alignment of finger trouble, defective software, and/or defective hardware can align to cause a problem at any time.  

Dubious data or dubious analysis leads to dubious decisions and distrust…

Data makes the modern world function. It’s at the heart of decision making by companies, governments, politicians, advisers, and experts of all kinds – and if it isn’t, then it should be!  Data, a valuable global resource, attracts a swarm of interest from those wishing to use it for purposes ranging from commercial gain to disinformation and propaganda. Whenever it’s presented to us, therefore, we should always wonder if the data itself is dubious, if the analysis of it is dubious, and if decisions based on these items are themselves dubious. Why? Because if we feel decisions are dubious, then disillusionment and distrust sets in and this is a really difficult trend to turn around.

A friend with a knack for uncovering ‘dodgy data’,  ‘dodgy analysis’, and hence ‘dodgy decisions’  on IT projects emailed recently lamenting how politicians and the scientists at their side could present some erroneous data in explaining the decision for England to enter a 2nd COVID lockdown.  They questioned whether the data, and the analysis of its consequences, ever got independently challenged or verified before being presented to the public? One would hope so, but it doesn’t feel like it, so we can hardly blame the media for making hay on the topic, or the public for becoming increasingly sceptical and distrustful.    

Dubious data, dubious analysis and dubious decisions are manifest everywhere in our modern, globally connected world.  The item here about a COVID-relevant study regarding Hydroxychloroquine just emphasises that ‘verification and assurance’ isn’t as strong as it should be with a last sentence saying ‘Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all is that the WHO and two entire countries halted trials of a potentially life-saving drug following the results of a single study that they failed to independently verify’.

Of course, honest mistakes happen, but the Badger senses that ‘verification and assurance’ is getting ever weaker, which is worrisome when every institution or corporation is becoming more creative in using data to push their own agenda, ideology, or bias.  Whenever information is presented to the general public making the case for an important decision, therefore, it has to be right that we can trust its efficacy and that it has been subjected to challenge using robust independent processes before being presented. 

In a world where misunderstanding, despondency, disillusionment, and distrust develops in seconds, we deserve to know that decisions conveyed by leaders are underpinned by sound data and analysis.  If excellent ‘verification and assurance’ functions are not embedded or truly effective in our institutions and corporations then distrust, disillusionment, and cynicism will become the baseline for our day to day lives. Surely we don’t want that? Perhaps it’s time that ‘verification and assurance functions’ got more attention from the media before, rather than after, key announcements?  Oh dear, perhaps bias has crept in here, after all the Badger turned from being an expert poacher into an expert ‘verification and assurance’ gamekeeper a number of times in his career…